Great Taste of the Midwest 2021
It’s been at least 16 months by my count since my last traditional beer festival. (FoBAB 2019 for me I believe.) Despite the Delta variant wrecking havoc on the nation, the Great Taste of the Midwest took place again in Madison, Wisconsin’s Olin Park. It felt normal again for a brief few hours. While I’ve been to modified beer festivals in the interim – StoutFest 2021 and Smells Like a Beer Fest 2021 – there’s something nice about being at a traditional beer festival again.
The Great Taste of the Midwest basically encapsulated all the phases of this pandemic. All planning took place during the vaccine boom in the early part of the year, kept their ground on precautions when the country opened back up again in June and July, and looked smart in doing that while the Delta variant surges across the country this month (August). So how did the precautions play out?
The most noticeable was the 50% of breweries in attendance. Empty tables littered the tents, adequately spacing out the breweries and their staff from each other. The Real Ale tent and presentation tents were removed, resulting in a bit more space between tents. After about an hour or two, I completely forgot that half of the normal breweries poured at the fest, Still so many options.
Attendance was capped at 50% as well. Typically around 10,000 total people are in the park for the Great Taste, so only 5,000 were allowed in. In some instances I couldn’t tell this at all (lines for timed tappings!), but moving about the fest was a breeze and I could always find space if I felt too close to other people. It actually played out nicely.
The biggest other noticeable changes were hand sanitizer at all watering stations and putting your glass down rather than handing it to the person for your pour. Small but necessary changes.
Great Taste Eve
Much like the festival itself, Great Taste Eve seemed to be less boisterous than in year’s past. (This could’ve just been me not wanting to deal with any packed parties.) Some traditional ones still went on (Revolution at Essen Haus for example) though. Due to extenuating circumstances (I went to the Field of Dreams game on Thursday and got into Madison later than normal on Friday), I was only able to hit one event.
And of course that would be the Funk Factory one. Featuring an impressive lineup of breweries – many of which do not pour at the Great Taste itself, the Funk Factory party has quickly become the must hit event of Great Taste Eve. The event featured the most space I’ve ever seen at Funk Factory, encompassing all of the area next to the brewery. Even though I got there late and most things had kicked, the space was more than adequate and the event was beyond chill.
Due to me arriving so late, I missed two events I really wanted to hit – the Young Blood/Eagle Park mullet event at Young Blood and Karben4’s “Unicorn Cat, Golden Ealge & Friends” event, most notably featuring Keeping Together, Side Project, Cruz Blanca, Hop Butcher and Super Moon. Next year!
Festival Pour of the Fest
Ah yes, the festival pour. The festival pour stand out and far above the rest of the beers at the fest for better or worse. This initially came about due to getting a pour of Hazel’s Nuts from Odd Side Ales at the Great American Beer Festival and raving about it. A few months later we put it on the show and it suffered because it was too sweet. While that’s not always the case, the flavors are definitely over-the-top on these beers.
RUNNER-UP: Maplewood’s Cuppa beers
Yes, they brought the lounge set up that’s been a mainstay for Maplewood at these festivals. And they brought their lighter stuff as well. But that don’t bring all the peeps to the line! So Maplewood brought both Cuppa Coconut and Barrel-aged Cuppa Peanut Butter and got that line! Both brought exactly what they said they would with the peanut butter really expressing it aggressively. Again, I would like to have these beers in a non-festival setting, but those that love the obvious and big flavors should look to get these.
WINNER: Toppling Goliath’s Term Oil beers
Thinking I could try and get some Vanilla Bean Assassin (good job on Toppling Goliath for not making it a timed tapping, just “whenever we pop one”) and getting denied, I instead got both the Term Oil Coconut Monster Cookie and Term Oil Fluffernutter and yes, I clearly got coconut and chocolate and vanilla and peanut butter, respectively. Probably wouldn’t have wanted more than the two ounces or so I got, but what I got delivered on exactly what they said would be in the beer. Unfortunately I probably won’t get a chance to try this in a different, more podcastly setting.
BRONZE: Mikerphone Brewing
The brewery swag game still shined brightly at the fest, but much like everything else it showed up in a much scaled back form. Not for Mikerphone! They had a swag wheel with all manner of items to be had, from koozies and frisbees to shirts, hats and glasses. At least from what I saw, easily the most swag at the fest. I also heard there was karaoke going on, but I never saw this at the booth myself (I hit them early before they inevitably kicked all their beers).
SILVER: Bell’s Brewing
A mainstay in this space, Bell’s always has interesting theme each and every Great Taste they attend. Their theme this year? Their interesting theme’s from past-Great Tastes! Set up like a museum, you could walk past and see all the swag from previous Great Tastes (mostly shirts) and Bell’s glassware from year’s past. They even had a Two Hearted throne that you could sit in for a picture. While their swag game came in a little short (just a puzzle), just being able to see all those things from past Great Tastes was really interesting.
GOLD: 3 Sheeps Brewing
This might be my favorite all-time booth at the Great Taste, and there have been some really good ones over the years. 3 Sheeps had one of the larger booths, consisting of two booths. One booth for the beer and the other area for a small 3 hole miniature golf course. While that’s been done before, 3 Sheeps took that extra step and hired comedians Josh Razavi and Chris Littrell to provide play-by-play and color commentary for those playing the course. You filled out a short questionnaire and handed it to the “Broadcast Booth” and away you go. And it was awesome. Probably a booth I will compare all future Great Taste of the Midwest booths to. Outstanding.
Best New Brewery to Me
It’s always nice to discover something you didn’t even expect due to recommendations from other people at the fest. Even though these breweries have been around for a bit, it always feels like you found something no one else has.
Located in Iowa City, Iowa, Big Grove opened in 2017 and look to expand to Des Moines in 2022. So they’re kind of big already. But this was my first time trying their wares. Their Moon Rabbit (Japanese rice lager) hit that crisp and refreshing note that you need during an outdoor summer festival. But their barrel-aged offerings really stood out to me. Their Batch 1000 Barrel-Aged Barleywine imparted a quick hit of sweetness and a lovely barrel presence to round things out. And, thinking of Fart Sandwich, their Spotted Dick-inspired barrel-aged imperial stout Richard the Whale, featuring a nice undercurrent of vanilla sweetness balanced by the barrels and fruit. They’re on my radar now!
Alpha State | Berliner Weisse with cherries | Schell’s Brewing | New Ulm, MN | 5% ABV
Existing somewhere between a light Berliner Weisse with a hint a fruit and a one of those jammy New Glarus R&D beers (VSB most notably), Alpha State managed to maintain its beer-like qualities while getting the fruit across. Delicious and refreshing, especially on a warm, summer afternoon at a beer festival.
Dark Ritual | Bourbon Barrel-Aged Chocolate Covered Cherry Stout | Falling Knife | Minneapolis, MN | 13.6% ABV
Unlisted pour! While not in the Great Taste program, Falling Knife did have bottle pours of this. If I had more from them, they probably would’ve been in the New to Me Brewery section. The chocolate is the star here, providing a rich, sweet base. The cherry supports, giving the beer a bit of acidity and cinnamon spice. The barrel definitely shows up, providing even more chocolate, some vanilla and a bit of heat and body. An overall excellent beer. Kind of mad I missed Falling Knife’s tap takeovers in Chicago after the fest!
DRIPA | Double Rice IPA | Kuhnhenn Brewing Company | Warren, MI | 9.5% ABV
I think I’ve written about this one before, but it’s still good! A West Coast DIPA brewed with rice, this features all of the bite and bitterness you’d expect of the style while keeping it refreshing and crisp due to the rice. Almost like an IPL but with more heft. Definitely worth a pour.
Hey Mambo, Mambo Italiano! | Italian Pilsner | Mikerphone Brewing | Elk Grove Village, IL | 5% ABV
Clean and crisp, what more could you want on a hot day? Hey Mambo gets all the crispy right while adding a small bit of grassy bitterness to finish everything off. Refreshing with some bitterness? Sure, I can get down. Hopefully people tried this and didn’t just go for the barrel-aged stuff. Points off for the artwork for this beer making me want pizza.
20 | Double Dry-Hopped IPA with honey | Piece Brewing & Pizzeria | Chicago, IL | 7.5% ABV
Even though it’s a DDH IPA, it’s not hazy. Big dank, pine, and resin notes along with some tropical fruits get a nice little sweet kick from the honey addition. Think more along the lines of Pipeworks Grouper series when it was in bombers and that’s the vibe coming off of this one. Congrats on 20 years Piece!
V.S.O.J. (2021) | Barrel-aged barleywine | Revolution | Chicago, IL | 15% ABV
Yeah, you know it’s good, with it’s waves of butterscotch, caramel, and bourbon hitting you. Just listen or read about it. It’s still good in the festival setting. Probably why I ended the day (post-fest) on a nine hour nap. Thanks Rev!
2020 Vietnamese Coffee Darkness | Rum Barrel-Aged Imperial Stout with coffee, vanilla and coconut | Surly | Brooklyn Center, MN | 12% ABV
My first trip up to the booth I went for the hype-ier Double Vanilla Darkness. It was OK but not nearly as good as the Coffee Darkness. The roasty coffee dominated the palate while the vanilla and coconut supported but showed up. Possibly due to it being a festival, but I got very little of the rum on the beer. Didn’t matter, as this one managed to stand out and remain balanced.
Sinister | Sour with prickly pear and pink guava | 3 Sheeps | Sheboygan, WI | 7.8% ABV
Guava can easily be overdone, much like yuzu and passion fruit. 3 Sheeps managed to pull off the pink guava in a kettle sour with the prickly pear providing a nice counterbalance to the acidic guava. Maybe it was the festival talking, but I couldn’t even tell it was a kettle sour, as I perceived no THP/cereal grain notes. A theme for this first fest back – refreshing beers!
Rooster Season | Imperial saison aged in red wine barrels | Tyranena Brewing Company | Lake Mills, WI | 8% ABV
Sometimes I approach a booth and ask whoever’s working to give me their favorite. The man working the Tyranena booth recommended this first and I jumped on it. Never getting too acidic or sour, the red wine imparted some nice grape and tannic notes to go along with a wheaty and lemony saison. Pleasantly surprised by this one and I loved their Saved By the Bell themed booth, complete with Screech’s robot Kevin!
Durian Durian | Mead with durian, pineapple and coconut | B. Nektar Meadery | Ferndale, MI | 3.1% ABV
I was most interested in trying this, a durian mead. If you’re not familiar with durian – well, it’s like the fruit version of Limburger cheese. So yeah, I had to have it. While I was somewhat disappointed it wasn’t straight durian, the coconut and pineapple actually cut the, um, offensiveness of the durian dramatically. It was still there with its dirty sock and musty character, but all in all I wasn’t as offended by it as other people were. Big points for putting durian in a liquid and I hope to try more beers/meads like this in the future. Bring on the Durian Show!